Blog mainly about engineering and some personal reflections.

About Me

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Chemical engineer working in the field of bulk chemicals for e.g. plastics and energy, specifically energy efficiency and renewables.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

My problem with carbon capture and storage.

The European Energy Review has in the previous few monthspublished a plethora on the subject of carbon capture and storage. Theirviewpoint has been both positive and negative. For example, there are two articles showing the case for and against CCS.
Both of these are well written articles and well researched.Both points of view are valid and the question put simply comes down to whetheryou believe that fossil fuels are needed or not. Assuming that you agree with agoal of a low carbon future, CCS isthus the only way to provide for that while using our remaining reservesof fossil fuels. However the other side would argue against that as it adds tocomplacency and the CCS is too expensive so we run the risk of running with thestatus quo.

However my problem with carbon, capture and storage is moreto do with the name and thus the implications thereafter. Why? The name isincorrect. The process of CCS is described in many places but essentially,energy is expended to take carbondioxide out of flue gas streams and then inject this carbon into theground where it should stay. That is a disposal operation and not a storageoperation. Routes for using that amount of CO2 have not been identified andeven those proposed (i.e. solvents) are still in very early stages ofdevelopment and because of the harsh conditions, are a long shot at best. Inother words the technology should be called carbon capture and disposal or CCD.

Yet everyone seems to be missing this point. Obviously adisposal technology is at the bottom of the waste pyramid. Thus using thistechnology only promotes the excessive use of our resources and does not promptus to use alternatives and cut back. The flip side to this is that storagesounds better and disposal. Further fossil fuels will be necessary for at leastthe next 50 years (the Germans are projecting at least till 2030 though estimatesare broadly showing that half of the grid is based on intermittent sources. Using intermittent sources to power a grid is not feasible according to E.ON and I agree with E.ON; see the summary).

In that context we see a boarder fault. Efficiency in oursystem is never really brought tothe fore. Despite the large subsidies for alternative energy sources and CCS,standard efficiency saving measures are not funded very well. For example estimatesat the cost of CCS in the prototype stage suggest that to capture most of theCO2 from a power station, we would require that station to use approximately30% more fuel to keep its current output. Remember that is at the prototypestage and that is at the initial stages of injection when pressures undergroundare minimal. Thus we are already loosing an efficiency battle here before webegin.

From that point of view I have large reservations on CCS. I am not necessarily against CCS in total as  I can see that fossil fuels will be requiredbut the emphasis should be on using less and not on making the system more inefficient.The CCS option should really be alast resort. That does not mean that renewable are the answer solelyeither. Extending the issue is very complex and I can only hope to havesprinkled a bit of light onto the issue regarding my position.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Year of Travel

In 2011 I will write my first end of year review. This is acatalogue of things I have done in the past year.
2011 is the year of travel (a nod to Earth abides wherethere is a custom of calling years after events). This year I have travelled toa fair few countries. I easily exceeded by my annual travel to one new country rulethat I try to keep. 

 My first stop was spending New Year with friends in Rouen.This was the first time in that part of France and I even managed to get thereusing passable French. I tried skiing for the first time in Switzerland in Februaryand even managed to get across the country and see some friends in Zermatt. Theskiing part is where you tell your body to become a giant snowball. I much preferredthe hiking with crimps. The Matterhorn is stunning and I had a quite chuckle asI sipped on coffee in front of the fabled mountain. 
I also entered Spain forthe first time but via Catalunya (theyare proud of that sort of thing). I met up with a former colleague and friend in Barcelona for April. I also had the surprise of staying in a Villa outside Barcelonawhich was truly beautiful. Next I managed to cycle form Alkmaar to Apeldoorn, again tomeet a former colleague and friend. During the early summer, I travelled toCologne which I have described earlier. It is a truly amazing city. 

After that, I joinedmy local rugby club for the Ameland beach rugby festival. Far too much boozewas to be had under the auspices of long and ‘serious’ conversations. In otherwords the craic was mightyand banter was to be had. Then I went home to Ireland to see my parents. Iclimbed the Galtee mountains for the first time (why have I waited so long) andtried to meet as much of my extended family as I could. Even some of ourAmerican family made an appearance. 

Next my job contract ended on October the 1st. I had seen itcoming and was happy to leave. Instead of rushing out to get a new job, Idecided to cycle the Rhine after the rugby world cup was finished for Ireland. FinallyI was to get one last surprise. I was invited to Swansea and Cardiff (travelexpenses paid) for a weekend; anothercountry to tick off the list.

During the year various friends stopped off and enjoyed myhospitality. Two from New Zeeland, one from Australia and a multitude fromIreland made the journey to the lowlands. I can truly say that with the upheaval in my job (I will begoing abroad for a new job) and all the travel, this year was the year oftravel.

Next up will be carboncapture and storage. Shudder. Even including the lie that is storage makes mecringe.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Details of the bicycle trip.

  • Bicycle: Trek 1.5 racing bike, standard setup, 7L handlebarbag, lights and armadillo armoured tyres.
  • Trailer: Extra wheel trailer with 2 60 L Crosso dry panniers
  • Trip: Alkmaar to Strasbourg via Arnhem mostly following theRhine. Detours included Frankfurt and Heidelberg.
  • Plan: Loose plan. Hostels were preferred but I had a tent inemergency but I never had to use it. Was aiming for a 12 day trip but ending upspending 16 days. From Strasbourg, I got a train to Paris and met up withfriends for a few days and then we drove back.
At the end of September, my contract with the companyexpired. I did not renew with them and instead decided to move on. In thisprocess I also decided to take some time out as I still had some money comingin from side projects. Thus I fixed my sights on cycling down the Rhine takingabout 3 weeks in total for the holiday. I had never toured by bicycle before. Ihave extensive road bike experience and from my younger days (I am 27), downhillmountain bike experience. However something like this was completely new forme.

The first step was to decide what setup I was going to use.I had a Trek 1.5 racing bike but I did consider buying a new bike specificallya touring bike completely setup for touring. The two bikes I was consideringwere from Koga and from the Cannondale touring range. The latter was discontinuedand the former seemed to my mind to be over the top for the time I would spend.Thus I decided to stay with the racing bike. The next step was to workout whether I would go ultra-light or carry gear. I decided that the time ofyear warranted gear. Options for carrying gear on the racing bike werelimited so I decided to buy a trailer. I choose the extra wheel trailer over the bobyak as it allowed me to buy the complete package. With the Crosso dry panniers,the trailer cost approx €300 + delivery from Poland.

The next step was to pick my route. I decided to go down theRhine along the Rhineradweg.I choose this as it is a pretty flat route (according to bikemap.net) and should have a prettygood surface for many parts. Further in the case of any emergencies, the areais well populated and has many bike stores and train stations. I planned tostay in hostels but I carried a tent just in case. I had my stops laid out untilCologne. After this point I would work on the fly. The distances I was going todo until that point were on average 100km per day. I would at Cologne assessthe setup and the distances. I would aim to start early (06:00-08:00) andfinish early (no later than 15:00). 

Trip details
The first few days were pretty uneventful. I had travelledto my 1st step Utrecht before but I had a beautiful day of sun.Arnhem my next stop, was new and the landscape started to change from the flat,open plains to forest areas with some slight inclines. Getting across theborder proved to be difficult as when I left the hostel, there was essentiallya thunderstorm occurring. Further calamity would occur as the side of the RhineI would choose was closed to cyclists just as I crossed the border. There wereno boat crossings in the vicinity so I had to detour. The storm lasted all dayand I stopped around 14:00 to assess my situation. I had cycled 70km and due tothe detour had a similar distance to go. I also had picked up an injury on my Achillesso I decided to get the train the rest of the way to Duisburg where I stayedwith friends. The next day having strapped up my ankle and finding that all mygear was dry, I continued to Cologne where I would have 2 days to spend.

At Cologne I opened all my bags and emptied then. I did finda small amount of moisture but this was more due to having hastily packedsemi-wet clothes into the waterproof bags rather than water ingress during thestorm. I let the bags dry out and enjoyed the jewel on the Rhine including itsimpressive Dom, a praetorian excavation, a museum depicting the Nazi rise topower in Cologne and other various sights.
After Cologne I decided to reduce my travel distance perday. I was now aiming at travelling approximately 40-60km per day. BelowCologne, the Rheinradweg is incredible beautiful and easy to follow especiallyon the right side of the river as you look south. Indeed this is therecommended side to travel as itstays truer to the Rhine. With the weather holding dry and temperatures aroundzero to twelve degrees, conditions were perfect for taking in the breath takingscenery. In particular the hostel in Oberwessel was located on top of a hillbeside an old and renovated castle. Other sights included Lorelei ,the pretty Koblenz and uncounted castles among a long list of others.

At Mainz I could not find accommodation and tried to get toFrankfurt. On paper, it is easy as you simply follow a river branch off theRhine. On that weekend, a cargo vessel full of chemicals sank and so that trackwas closed. I made a detour which became pretty ardours as it took me throughvineyards. There was no direct bike track for a long way and thus I ended updoubling my distance. However I finally made it to Frankfurt. Frankfurt has aspectacular skyline (unusual for us Europeans) but it is a pretty soullessplace filled with flashy bars and restaurants that lack substance and depth.Sachsenhausen, the old part of the city does provide some more substance.
Form Frankfurt I stopped in Worms which is noted for theDiet of Worms and has a nice old town. From there I travelled to Mannheim (which is a weirdcity with a chessboard layout and no street names) and continued on toHeidelberg. Here I delighted in the castle and the philosopher’s way whichcumulates in the ruins of an old monastery as well as the Thingst?tte amphitheatre. Heidelbergis a beautiful town. Afterwards I headed to the quaint but under constructiontown of Karlsruhe. A large remodelling of the towns metro and tram system makesit appear ugly but the people are very friendly. My final stop was Strasbourgwhich is a historic and beautiful French town. This was a fitting end to the trip.

Impression: Route
The route is highly recommended. It is visually impressiveand contains many distractions to get you away from the cycling. For the mostpart the surface is paved though there are several sojourns across forestedareas without paving. Sign posts are pretty regular but the golden rule isalways to keep near the Rhine. Once you go too far away, you are on your own. Ifyou accomplish this, the route is flat and contains no climbs. However if youdo feel adventurous, most of the castles are located on top of the hills alongthe Rhine and 10% gradients need to be overcome to get to these by bike.

Impression: Gear
The handling of the bike and the trailer held up extremelywell even under difficult conditions such as forest trails. The racing bike isobviously not the best for these trails but the trailer added extra stability.Under normal conditions the trailer lowers the centre of the gravity so thereis more manoeuvrability which helps avoid bumps. The panniers proved to belarge and water proof even under thunderous conditions. One thing is that thebike with the trailer attached is difficult to take up and down stairs. Cyclingwith the trailer does take a bit of getting used to but after 100km, I wascompletely at ease.

I would make some improvements. A rear mudguard for the back on the racing bike would be an idea. A kickstand would also be very useful. For the trailer, a long carry strap wouldbe useful. Also a socket for a light would also be appreciated.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

An ending. A new beginning.

Near St Goar
One can only measure ones humility, courage and strength ofcharacter by doing something that changes ones perception of humility, courageand strength of character.  In recentweeks I stopped writing because I was challenging my determination. I havecycled from the Amsterdam area to Strasbourg, mostly on the Rhine. In manyrespects it was the celebration of an ending and the utterance of a potentialnew beginning. In all honesty it was a mental test of unyielding stupidity. Truelyafter nigh on a thousand kilometres and on reflection, one could wish for a newbeginning and perhaps a new intelligence. But in consequence, I remain mostly the same.

At the end of October I finished my contract with thecurrent company. I am not unhappy about the situation as I believe that thecompany is resting on its laurels. Further in the group and unit that I was in,I see very little coherence in management and see the wrong people brought tothe fore and talking advantage of the situation. Finally the goals that I hadset for the company and its primary product (it takes/makes research productsand tries to bring them to market) at the start of this contact did not materialise.I do not see them being realised in a significant way for some years despitethat fact that I feel that these goals were attainable during my period at the company.One of the main drivers for doing the trip was to soften the negative feelings relatedto the lack of progress and to letthe positives from my experience assert themselves more.

My trip down the Rhine took me to places such as thebeautiful Cologne, the charming Oberwesel which is just up the road from Lorelei, the soulless Frankfurt, thecountry town of Karlsruhe and to the very French Strasbourg among others.I finished with friends in Paris via train. In all I spent 21 days travellingwith 16 days taking me from Amsterdam to Strasbourg at approximately 850 km onthe bicycle.

This trip has put some very important issues intoperspective. It has allowed me to focus on the negatives but in a more humorouslight. It has brought to the fore my sense of achievement in the job I did whichallows me to articulate on that subject. In brought into perspective a small part of the energyissues in Germany that I wrote about earlier. Most of all it showed mydetermination and overcome an obstacle that was placed in front of me. This will prove useful in my forthcomingjob hunt.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The German nuclear folly

There were many releases in the media regarding Germanysannouncement that it would phase out nuclear power by 2022 a few months back. Indeedthese stories have been around from at least 5 years ago (Ny times, Business week: Coal boom).Now that the dust has settled, three very disturbing facts seem to be coming tothe fore. Germany will no longer be able to export electricity to othercountries and may have to rely on imports. Germany may be facingblackouts as soon as this winter.  Meanwhile Germany will be destroying its environmental credentials as it will have toincrease fossil fuel use.

Germany currently receives around 23% or approximately 31 GWof its electricity from nuclear production (CNBC: Germany dims nuclear). Itstotal electricity production is around 133 GW so stopping the electricity fromnuclear power will leave 100GW. The demand for Germany is approximately 80-90GW.There are already calls to keep the availability of one or more of thesereactors operational from the head of Germany’s federal network agency no less.(Spiegel: Calls for nuclear).  This is because variability in the solar andwind network could easily see that 10 GW safety margin disappear  (As a follow-up which came some time after I wrote the abovewe see that Germany will rely on dirty coal and imports to power itself (Platts: Nuclear not needed)). Germany is no longer an electricity exporter).

Indeed despite apparent success in the renewable energysector (The renewable sources act),  the real story of the last five years is theboom in coal plant construction as indicated by the Business week: Coal boom report. This expansionunder the new revised timeline for nuclear departure is likely to increase withincreased reliance on coal and gas (Businessweek: Russian gas for Germany).Despite the promise of clean coal, the only major project in Germany isVattenfall’s project and this pales in comparison to the size of typical plants(Vattenfall clean coal pilot plant, Clean coal).Not only that but initial estimates show that the process consumes nearly 30%of the energy that it generates leading to the use of even more raw material.

The politicians cannot guarantee that theclimate goals that they have set for themselves can be meet while keepingelectricity as cheap as it is now. However in a quote from the CNBC: Germany dims nuclear article, there is amuch greater threat
This winter, Amprion predicts its grid will have 84,000 megawatts ofelectricity at its disposal, to provide 81,000 megawatts needed for consumption— an uncomfortably slim margin of safety, Vanzetta said. In prior years,electricity was readily available for purchase on the European grid if theprice was right. But exported German power is what helped keep France glowingin winter.
There is the chance that there will be blackouts in bothGermany and France due to the slim margins. Indeed considering that margin andthat up to 6% of the electricity generated in a grid is lost (ABB: Efficiency in the power grid),one might even believe that meeting the demand is impossible without imports.

The poignant message is that German politicians are eitherlying to its electorate or are illiterate on energy issues. Increasingrenewables will cause massive cost increases to the German taxpayer due to thehigh feed in tariffs needed to keep these energy sources competitive (competitivefor the producer, not the consumer). Subsidies for solar and wind (see therenewable energy sector link) are approximately 10 times the industrial spot electricity price (EU industrial energy prices).As the share of renewable power increases, electricity prices will start torise and meet the feed in tariff cost. Indeed change over to gas will alsoincrease electricity prices to a certain extent.

My opinion on the issue is quite simple. Merkel has simplybowed to pressure from the ill-informed electorate to stop nuclear power due tofears after Fukishima. This was the incorrect choice and such issues should notbe decided by political pressure. There is an easy choice that should have beenoffered to the German consumer. They could accept stability of supply bykeeping a large part of the nuclear power online or they could have been shownthat electricity production without nuclear is extremely fragile. In that lightI think that the German consensus would have been to reduce rather than do awaywith. However that would have required some political will. 

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Potentail for a new and cheaper desalination process from Siemens

Chemical engineering magazine in their August issue  is running a story that has high importance to many people worldwide. Siemens has been running a  demonstration unit for water desalination for the last 3 years based on a relatively niche technology called electro dialysis (ED).  Apparently using this system reduces the costs of desalination as compared to reverse osmosis by half. 

This is big news. First reverse osmosis membranes has a hefty market value of $9 billion and most of this comes from desalination. Being able to capitalize on that market, expand it and dominate it with a new technology would be very profitable for Siemens and its baseline. Secondly reverse osmosis usage is only going to increase so the market will tend to grow naturally even without a large step improvement in the technology.  Obviously countries like Australia, Singapore  and Israel have RO. Water scarcity in these countries rivals energy and environmental concerns with pressure on existing reservoirs and on reusing water.  However large desalination plants exist in wetter countries such as the UK and other Northern European plants due to the pressure on the natural reservoirs.

Taking the UK as an example (I use it as I happen to have the data saved) we can look into more detail. Current water costs taken for the existing system in the UK are approximately €1/L though it varies widely on the authority. Using current electricity prices, RO water would cost approximately 0.80€/L before markup. This would suggest that either RO can be directly put into the water grid there or that the market is significantly larger than 0.20€/L (which is why we don’t see a lot of RO in the UK). The advent of the new technology would mean that desalination could actually compete as a standard technology (and not just because of scarcity) in the UK and countries with similar situations. 

Indeed in drier countries, we may start to see RO being used for agricultural water which would certainly help reduce the depletions of various aquifers worldwide to supply farms. Water scarcity is going to be a major problem in the future with many countires already having a high water stress.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

About three years ago I moved to The Netherlands and was subsequently using my summer bonus to buy a Trek 1.5; a standard entry level raving bike (the frame is fantastic BTW). Currently I also have a 30 year old Peugot bike as my go to for socialising and shipping. This was brought about by the fantastic cycling infastructure in The Netherlands. While the weather is not always the best, it is easily possible to cycle from one side of the country to the other without ever joining a road that contains cars. Essentially The Netherlands has a bike road network with its own traffic lights and sign posts. Cycling is not only segregrated, it is revered in this country with the right of ways always in favour of the cyclist (except on major roads where bikes are not allowed) when cars and bikes should meet. Since nearly everyone cycles, there is a good respect between cyclists and other road users. The use of the bicycle does many things for me and this article got me think about it again. I will discuss some of these things below.

Carbon footprint

My daily commute to work and back is approximately 50 km. I work on average 220 days a year assuming I take no overtime and an 8 hour day. My annual commute is approximately 11,000km. I have three main modes of transport to get to work. I can get the company provided bus, I can get a lift from my house mate who works on the same site sometimes and I can cycle. The breakdown is as follows
  • Company bus: 6,800km
  • Lift from friend: 2,000km
  • Cycle 1 day a week: 2,200km
Using the carbon footprint calculator for driving a car, I can come up with a figure that is specific for the make and model of the car. Using the data from the slate article allows me to calculate the carbon footprint for the overall lifetime. By cycling that amount and not going by car I am saving around 300kg of CO2. The average CO2 emissions per person for the UK is around 10,000kg. One thing to note is that it is difficult to get CO2 emissions data for cycling.

Cost for fuel

Obviously I would have to purchase a car, have insurance etc. But in terms of fuel, the cost is easy to calculate. The car I chose for the carbon test does approximately 6.6L/km and fuel costs in The Netherlands is around €1.65 per liter. I save €550 from the exercise.


The feeling of freedom on a bicycle is hard to convey. Hitting the road and exploring the surroundings is always interested. Not only that but it leads me into a bicycle trip that I will be doing in the future where I currently plan to go down the Rhine. Obviously I do not need to go to the gym (though I do for rugby) to keep in shape.
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